Last Letters

September 21, 2007

Exactly one year ago, my dad died. He lived a very long life (he would have turned ninety this April) and a very rich one, too, and was loved by pretty much everyone who ever met him, none the least of which were his three sons (the middle one of which—the baloney in the brother-sandwich—is me).

He had no major illness, no prolonged suffering, no terminal trauma. He just went to bed on a Wednesday night after a normal day and, absent-minded professor that he was, simply never got around to getting up again on Thursday.

I think this is the way I’d like to go, when it’s my turn. (I have already placed my order with the Fate & Destiny Dept.) And for that matter, I wouldn’t mind leaving a legacy like his, either. I’ve studied under him (composition and conducting) and performed under him (cello and recorder in his Bach Choir orchestras—even once in Bach’s own church in Leipzig, behind the Iron Curtain, when there still was such a thing), as well as grown up under him. As role models go, it’s hard to imagine one could do better.

A few years ago, in the autumn, he was starting to feel used up and began making very Eeyore-like predictions that he would not last the winter. But then he got a new project to work on, and it blew fresh spring air into his life for another handful of years. (Note to self: purpose = longevity.) The project was this: there is a rich correspondence between Johannes Brahms (the famous composer) and Clara Schumann (the pianist and wife of the other famous composer) that extends for decades. Although fourteen years separated them, Clara (the elder of the two) and Johannes became fast friends and remained close throughout their lives. Their letters had never been fully translated into English.

This became our task. Over the last few years of his life, my dad would call me twice a week and dictate one translated letter from his handwritten notes, which I would type on my computer. I would then translate his “English” into something that you and I would think of as English. (Although he came over to the U.S. in the late 1930s and made this country his home in almost every way, his English never quite escaped its German-thinking underpinnings.)

We started with the letters of 1855 and had gotten all the way through 1871, when he called one day and said he had something a little different: he wanted to skip a quarter-century, just for the day, and translate the correspondence from 1896.

On May 7, 1896, Cara Schumann wrote to Brahms: “Warmest good wishes from your affectionately devoted — Clara Schumann” and then added this postscript:

“More I cannot do now, but all soon. Your —”

It was her last letter to Brahms.

Brahms, not realizing that he was writing the final chapter of his correspondence with his lifelong friend, wrote her a reply the next day that concluded with a pledge that he would write again soon:

“You wouldn’t believe how countless many more things there are, waiting for me to tell you. — Johannes”

Clara left this life less than two weeks later, and in less than a year’s time, Brahms joined her.

As it turns out, these were also the last letters my dad dictated to me. He must have known, on some level, that his symphony had reached its coda, and he made sure that I had the end of the Clara-Johannes story, leaving it to others to fill in the missing, still untranslated pieces in between.

I imagine him saying, “More I cannot do now, but all soon.”

To which I can only reply, “You wouldn’t believe how countless many more things there are, waiting for me to tell you.”

3 Comments

  1. Nice!

    Reply
  2. dear john…
    i enjoy reading your writings – especially the piece about your father. you have always been one of my favorite writers.
    thank you
    charles kuhn

    Reply
  3. Dear John,
    Thank you for writing this and other pieces,
    Michal

    Reply

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